JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska —
Lying face-down on a concrete stairwell with blood gushing from her chin and a military training instructor barking orders an inch from her face, an 18-year-old basic military training recruit wondered if enlisting in the Air Force was the right choice.
Thirty years later, U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Gay L.C. Veale put on her uniform for the last time at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, where she served as the Eleventh Air Force command chief master sergeant and senior enlisted leader of the Alaskan NORAD Region and Alaskan Command.
Veale joined the Air Force after high school with goals of earning money for school and seeing the world.
After basic military training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, the Houston native was sent to the neighboring state of New Mexico to work at Cannon Air Force Base, where she served four and a half years.
After that, Veale began to feed her desire for travel with her next assignment, Ramstein Air Base, Germany. It was there, she said, the world finally opened up to her, and as she approached her 10-year mark, she considered another reenlistment.
Airmen join the Air Force for many different reasons, but for those who make it a career, their reasons for serving often grow and differ from their reasons for joining.
“The mission at Ramstein was so incredible and really opened my eyes to what the military brings in terms of national security,” Veale recalled. “I saw so many aspects of what goes into that, be it politics or economy. That’s when I realized I was part of something bigger. I genuinely wanted to defend my country and make sure we secured the freedoms our nation upholds. After that, there was no looking back.
“I had no idea I would one day become a chief or serve 30 years, but that’s when I decided that this was what I wanted to do for my career,” she said.
Then at her 20-year mark, Veale said the day just came and went, and she thought, “Well, that’s 20,” but she wasn’t ready to retire – “not even close.”
“Even now, I’m not ready to retire. If the Air Force would let me serve longer, I absolutely would,” she said. “I love it. I love the Air Force. I love our mission and what we do. It’s so humbling and such an honor to have had the opportunity to do this.”
Veale said many Airmen throughout their time of service will face challenges and one thing that helped her overcome is her attitude and mindset.
“I’m an eternal optimist, and I believe in the power of positivity,” she said. “Stay focused on the task at hand and realize you’re working toward something bigger than yourself. Stay positive. There’s a greater cause out there when it comes to serving your country.”
One of the lessons Veale shares with Airmen is that all tasks, no matter how insignificant they might appear, are important and serve a purpose.
“Stay focused on the bigger picture because there’s an entire nation relying on you and your teammates to get the mission done so they can maintain their freedoms and their way of life. When you think about it from that perspective, I think it’s pretty easy to overcome just about any challenge you can face.”
Throughout the course of her 18 assignments, Veale has held countless roles and served alongside military members of all branches and from a variety of nations.
“I just want to say to Airmen and joint service members across the globe,” she said. “Thank you for your service,” she said. “Having had the privilege of serving in the Air Force where I’ve had exposure to vast numbers of Airmen, I am so encouraged about our future, and I know I will sleep really well at night when I take the uniform off because our nation is in fantastic hands. So I just say to all of you, thank you for your service, do great things, be innovative, and continue to push the boundaries and limits. I’m so honored to have served on your team.”
Three decades after her fall at basic military training, Veale stood on a stage with a smile on her face, a tear rolling down her cheek, and a folded American flag in her hands in front of gathered family, friends and those she influenced and mentored throughout the course of what she called an adventure of a lifetime.
“It’s been incredible. I would start the clock over today at day one and do it all over again if the Air Force would let me,” she said. “I’ve had the time of my life. People say it’s hard to make the transition to civilian life. I think it’s because it’s so awesome when you have such an incredible adventure, and then all of a sudden it’s over. I’m immensely envious of those who still have the opportunity to serve. I will live vicariously through you and see all your success, and it will bring me great joy.”